Shirayuki had seen a lot of naked men. Naked women too, and people whose gender she hadn't been able to tell. She'd seen chests, and legs, and more private places, had advised patients on everything from venereal infections to hemorrhoids. And none of it had bothered her. It was just part of the job. Even when she was treating Zen she tried to think of him as just another patient, and barely swooned at all.
So when Obi had been splashed with poison during a fight she'd been fine helping him strip off his tainted clothes, fine helping him wash off the poison, entirely unbothered while checking his skin for any adverse reaction. It was only afterwards that she felt awkward, as they sat by the fire eating dinner and waiting for his clothes dry.
"Are you sure you're ok?" she said, poking at her stew.
"Fit as a fiddle," he replied cheerfully. "I think that guy just said it was poison to throw me off my guard. Not that it did it him any good." Obi's voice was smug. The man who'd attacked them had caught them by surprise but had barely lasted a minute against Obi, even with his "poisonous" attack, and now lay tied up against a nearby rock while he slept off his injuries.
"It's certainly something," said Shirayuki. "It smells so odd, like sulphur mixed with almonds. And to have so much of it, way out here in the forest…" Investigation of the man's nearby camp had revealed a cave stacked with crates filled with bottles of the same liquid he'd thrown at Obi: thick and opaque, it had an oily sheen and an unpleasant, distinctive scent.
"He must have enemies, too, or thinks he does," said Obi. "Why else would he attack harmless looking strangers like us?"
Shirayuki looked up and nodded, then regretted it. Obi was leaner than Zen, and darker, but they had the same smooth, muscular lines that made her want to trace the edges of their bones with her fingers and feel their muscles move beneath her skin. The firelight glinted off his long dark eyelashes, and his smiled flashed white. Curls of dark hair peeked out from under the blanket he'd wrapped around himself. She felt her heart beat faster.
This was worse than sharing a bath with Kiki. Why were all her friends so attractive? Shirayuki looked into the fire instead.
"It's funny to think that if he'd just stayed where he was and let us pass, noone would have ever known about this…whatever it is."
"We must share the joke with him when he wakes up," said Obi. "After I've persuaded him to share the secret of his 'poison'."
It's ok to be attracted to Obi she reminded herself. She was attracted to lots of people. It wasn't being disloyal to Zen, and the delicate committment between them. It wasn't as if she'd mind if Zen was attracted to other people, as long as he still cared for her. The only time she worried was when she thought of him having to marry someone else. But attraction, simple appreciation with no action or deeper feeling beneath it? What was wrong with that?
She reminded herself of this repeatedly as the days went on. After they dealt with the man and his 'poison' (actually a new kind of explosive, which had made them both very glad to have washed Obi's clothes thoroughly before putting them by the fire) As they finished their trip home through the mountains. As they returned to life in the castle. It's just an attraction. Obi is a very handsome man. There's nothing wrong with noticing that.
She tried not to let it bother her. But it was hard not to blush when they brushed against each other in the narrow space of her office, hard not to stare when he smiled.
So she avoided him. She knew it was cowardly, but surely this was a temporary problem, like a fever that would burn and then fade. She valued her friendship with Obi too much to risk the awkwardness that would come if he knew of her feelings. Or to think of the consequences if Zen found out.
It was worst when she saw Zen and Obi together, and instead of Zen being the one bright shining light, she only saw the two of them as a whole, as the two most beautiful, lovable, most trustworthy people she knew. She could no longer pretend that there was a clear difference between the love she felt for Zen and the "simple" attraction and friendship she felt for Obi. The only difference was in how they looked at her, and what promises she'd made.
"Your hair is especially luxurious today, Master," said Obi, with a smile. "Are you using a new soap?" He leaned in and sniffed Zen's hair. Zen tensed, feeling himself blush. He should have gotten used to Obi's teasing by now but it always made him feel…something. Off balance, perhaps. "Mmm…lavender." Zen hit Obi on the nose, and he danced away, laughing.
"You wanted to talk to me about something?" said Zen, scowling.
"Just to make sure that your orders regarding Mistress haven't changed." Obi's tone was light, but Zen knew him well enough to hear the underlying tension. Which was odd, for Zen couldn't remember having said anything that would make Obi think things had changed. That said, he had noticed Shirayuki behaving a little strangely since she and Obi had returned from their trip. He'd put it down to her being distracted by all the tasks that had piled up while she was away, but perhaps he should have asked her about it.
"No," he said. "Why, has she said something?"
"She has not. I wondered if perhaps you…" He shrugged. "It's nothing."
Zen reached out his hand. "Obi, if something's bothering you…"
But Obi had already loped away, out of sight.
"Good afternoon, Mistress."
Shirayuki let out a gasp and nearly dropped the book she was consulting. Obi smiled down at her from his perch on the windowsill. "Obi," she said, "You surprised me!"
"I apologise," said Obi. "But it seems that lately that whenever I announce my presence in advance you somehow manage to be elsewhere. Were I a paranoid man I might think you were trying to avoid me."
Shirayuki bit down on the lie she wanted to say, denying his accusation and pretending everything was fine. She could be very good at pretending everything was fine. But he deserved better than that. "I'm sorry, Obi."
He picked at a speck on the glass. "Have I done something to offend you? I know I can be pretty offensive, so you'll have to be specific. I thought perhaps Master…but he seemed as ignorant as me. So you will have to tell me what I need to apologise for. If you need me to change."
"No! I'm not…I'm not upset with you."
"You would just prefer that I be other than where you are. I see." He gave a thin smile. "I will do my best, if that's what you want, but it may make it difficult to be your bodyguard."
"No, Obi…" She closed her eyes for the length of a breath, unable to think clearly with his sad smile in front of her. Then she took a step closer and put her hand on his where it held onto the windowframe. She could feel the subtle tension of his tendons and the skin stretched across his bones. His face was very close now, his golden eyes wide as they looked into hers. He was so lovely. How had it taken her so long to see it, and what was she going to do now that she could? "I'm sorry, Obi," she said. "I have been very unfair to you. Can you wait a little longer, though? Then I promise I will do my best to stop being so strange."
"You don't have to promise me anything," he said.
"I promise," she said, squeezing his hand.
"What is it?" said Zen, closing the door. It must be something important, for Shirayuki to ask him to meet somewhere private. "Is it about Obi?"
"Oh," said Shirayuki. "How did you…did he say something to you?"
"Not as such. But I get the feeling that something happened while you were away. Right?"
"Obi hasn't done anything wrong."
"Obi hasn't…so you think you're in the wrong, and you want my advice?"
Shirayuki blushed and nodded, hiding her face.
"Then I'm sure he'll forgive you. He…" He loves you thought Zen. As always, the thought made him feel warm, afraid and excited. But knowing Obi's feelings would do Shirayuki no good right now. Whether it was wrong to keep them from her in general…that was not a question for the moment. "He cares about you, and he didn't seem angry or upset to me. Just confused. I think you've upset him more in your guilt than with whatever you feel guilty about."
"Mm," said Shirayuki, nodding. "That's why…that's why I want to discuss it with you. Because I don't want to hurt him. But I don't want to hurt you either."
"Hurt me? Shirayuki, what is it?" He leaned closer, and put his hand on her cheek. His fingers came away wet.
"I love you," she said. Normally those words made his heart grow light, but her eyes were so sad, and Zen's chest felt like it was made of lead. "I love you so much…"
"But I think I love Obi too."
"Ah," said Zen. He wasn't strong enough to hide the pain in his voice. Part of him had always worried this day would come. And another part of him was, for some reason, relieved, though he loved Shirayuki as much as ever.
"It's not his fault," said Shirayuki, "He's never done anything to make me think he has feelings for me. I just…I don't know! One day I looked at him, and I couldn't just see him as a friend any more, and I've tried to make things go back to how they were and I can't." She was sobbing now, her voice strained and broken, streams of tears running down her cheeks. He wanted to hug her, but would his touch be a comfort?
"Shirayuki," he said, when he felt he could speak calmly again. "Shirayuki, it's ok."
"Even if you decide you want to be with someone else, I still…I'm still your friend, Shirayuki. That will never change."
"But I don't want to be with anyone else, Zen!"
"Because you think you can't. But what if Obi…"
And that was when the door to the next room opened with a bang.
"What are you doing?!" said Obi in a low, angry undertone. Master was about to ruin everything.
"What am I doing…were you in there the whole time?"
Obi shrugged awkwardly. "I didn't intend to eavesdrop at first, but then I started to worry…" He frowned at his Master. "And rightly so, as it turns out. Whatever you were going to say, stop."
His heart was racing. He still couldn't believe…of all the explanations he'd considered for his Mistress being strange around him of late, the thought that she might be in love with him had never crossed his mind. It was absurd.
"Obi," said Master. "You don't understand. Shirayuki…"
"I understand fine! I understand that everything is ok as it is." He glared at Master. Didn't he see what a mess this would make of everything?
"I don't understand," said Mistress. "Obi, did you…" She looked up at him with wide, worried eyes. "Obi how much did you hear?"
Should he lie? But she had been so sad, before. And they had not been able to talk as they once had. He wanted things to stay the same, but there was no changing the way she felt. No understanding it either, why look at him? Why want anything else when she had Master? "I heard enough, Mistress," he said, affectionately. She turned red and hid her face in her hands.
"I'm so sorry," she said.
"No!" said Obi. "You have nothing to apologise for. You are the same to me as you have always been. If I look differently to you…I don't mind. If you want me to change, I can, but if you don't, I see no reason we can't go on as before."
"No," said Mistress. "Don't change. And thank you. I'm sorry, I have been foolish. I shouldn't have let it bother me."
"You're not the first to be a fool for…" The word love hung in the air between them. Mistress blushed, but looked him in the eye, and smiled. Obi's heart swelled with affection for her; his perfect, wonderful Mistress. He would have been the worst sort of coward if he couldn't look her in the eye and smile back. And so he did.
"Obi's the one being a fool," said Master.
"Shut up," said Obi.
Obi crossed his arms, and Master thankfully had enough sense not to continue. So they just glared.
Mistress frowned at them both. "What is it you're not explaining to me?"
"Nothing important," said Obi.
Mistress frowned some more, but neither of them budged. She sighed and sat down on a nearby couch. "I suppose I can't complain that you're keeping secrets. But I wish you wouldn't talk over my head."
"You're right, I'm sorry," said Master. "Obi, we should discuss this somewhere…"
"No," said Obi. "We're not going to discuss this. You're not going to discuss this with Mistress. There is nothing to discuss. We should go back to work."
"Obi," said Master angrily. "Why do you refuse to consider…What makes what you want not important?"
"I have what I want," he said.
"No you don't!"
Master's face was red, angry and determined. Out of concern for Obi. His voice was firm, his eyes bright, his hands tight and frustrated, reaching out across the short space between them. Giving Obi orders tempered by respect. Wanting him to be happy, to be free.
Obi put his hand on his Master's shoulder. "I have as much of what I want as I can stand."
"Why? Why can't…"
Obi leaned down and kissed him gently on the lips. His mouth was still open, soft and slightly wet. This was not how Obi had imagined kissing him. But he'd always known that it would be a disaster. Obi felt Master gasp, felt his shoulder twitch in surprise. Obi took a step back.
"What?! Why did you kiss me?"
"You really are stupid sometimes Master," said Obi.
Master just stared at him, and then put his hands to his mouth. He looked at his fingers like he'd never seen them before.
"Oh, Obi," said Mistress. "I'm so sorry."
Mistress. She was still sitting there on the couch, watching with her wide, observant eyes. She didn't look confused any more, just sad. He'd kissed Master in front of her. She loved them both and he'd…what had he been thinking?
He hadn't been thinking at all.
"This is stupid," he said. He wanted to get away before he made things any worse, but then Master would talk to Shirayuki, and…There was no way out. Everything was ruined.
He should have left years ago, like he'd originally planned. Left before he got tangled up in these people's lives so badly that it wasn't just his soul that would be split if he left.
He slapped his hand against the wall hard enough to hurt, and then leaned against it, slouching with a false easy borne of many years of practice. "You know," he said, "I've heard the weather is nice in the southern islands at this time of year. Maybe I'll move there and learn to raise birds."
"I…" Master's voice caught, and then changed, sending a shiver down Obi's back. "I never said you could go." That was the I'm a Prince and you have to listen to me voice. Obi liked that voice.
"Is that so, Master," said Obi, turning to face him but still leaning lazily against the wall. "What are your orders, then?"
"Tell us what you want, Obi," said Master. "How can you know you'll never get it if you haven't ever truly asked?"
"I want what I have always wanted," said Obi. "To serve my Master and Mistress." He stared Master in the eye and he coloured and looked away. Don't ask questions you don't want the answer to thought Obi. "And what good am I, is my service, if I can only do you both harm?"
"Obi," said Shirayuki softly. Obi looked at her, and her eyes were wide and full of…something. Compassion? Pity? It was his turn to look away. He couldn't stand pity from her right now.
She stood and stepped forward and took his hand. "Obi, do you think you don't deserve to walk at our side? That we won't let you? I don't know if Zen…I don't know if his feelings are exactly the same as…as yours. Or mine. But I know he loves you. We both love you. Please don't leave. We can work something out."
Obi's voice caught and he could feel the pinprick of tears in his eyes for the first time in a long time. "How?"
She took a breath and for a moment he almost believed she could fix everything, the way she always did. But then she said "I don't know!" Obi laughed. Naturally. Mistress was a wonder, but she couldn't work miracles. Her voice remained determined regardless. "But I know you're not a coward. So be brave enough to try!"
She pulled Obi with her towards Master, taking his hand as well. A moment later Obi felt Master's hand reaching for his, so that they made a circle, though his Prince wasn't quite brave enough to look him in the eye as he did it. They must look like dancers at a fair. What sort of dance is this, with three partners? thought Obi. I can't see any way for us to move forward without tripping over each other's feet.
He felt Master squeeze his hand. "I do love you," he said, softly. "I'm not sure I've ever said it, but…she's right. We both love you. And you love us."
And he did. Of course he did. "That's a pretty sentiment," said Obi. "But it's not…"
Mistress tugged on his hand in complaint. He felt like a dog being disciplined. "If you and I can be friends," said Mistress, "Then so can you and Zen."
Obi looked at Master. There was no disgust in his eyes, as he had always feared there would be. Only an open affection that made him feel warm and safe.
"If Master wills it," said Obi.
"Then…then what's the problem?" said Mistress. "If we all feel different kinds of love, but walk together side by side…"
It was too simple, too huge. It couldn't work. But it seemed he had no choice in the matter.
"Very well then," said Obi. "I will continue to travel with you. But only as long as Master and Mistress are still able to share their love as before. I will not see that ruined because of me." Had he not ruined everything after all?
"But we don't feel different kinds of love," said Master.
"Master," said Obi in a warning tone.
Master stepped closer to Obi and looked him in the eye. "But we don't."
No. This was impossible. Beyond impossible.
"Zen…" said Mistress, in a tone of surprise and wonder.
Obi's desire to run away almost overwhelmed him. This was spiralling out of control. He took a step backwards, and felt the grip on both his hands tighten.
"No, Obi, it's all right," said Mistress. "Zen, if you…I don't mind. I…I feel like I should! But I don't. If you love Obi, and if it would you bring you both joy, I can…step back. Or…or share."
Obi felt weak, and small. His voice came out as a croak. "Share?"
Mistress blushed. "Yes. We both love Zen. If neither of you would object, I think we could find a way to…" Obi stared at her. He couldn't think, couldn't move.
"Obi," said Master, darkly, "Can I please finish telling Shirayuki what I was trying to say before you interrupted us?"
Obi was still frozen.
"Zen?" said Mistress, confused.
"Unless you wish to tell her yourself," said Master, staring at him.
Mistress looked up at him with wide eyes. He felt both of them staring at him, their open, waiting gazes like swords pointed at his heart. You were wrong about me not being coward, Mistress, he thought. He had to look away before he could speak.
"It's just…what Master said before. About us not feeling different kinds of love. It's true. I guess. As it turns out." He took short breaths and tried not to be entirely aware of the blood rushing to his face.
He felt Mistress's hand tighten around his.
"Obi," she said, softly. "Oh…"
It was too much for him. He couldn't escape them, it seemed, but he could sit down. He let go of their hands and took the seat Mistress had been sitting in. He wondered if he was imagining that it still held her scent. Perhaps it was that it filled the whole room.
Obi covered his eyes. He felt Mistress sit beside him and then, after a moment, felt Master's weight as he sat down on Obi's other side. He was trapped indeed. But their silent presence offered comfort more than it did fear.
He opened his eyes and leaned his head back against the headboard of the couch. What now?
He turned his head subtly to see what the others were doing. Master was staring at the curtained window as if he could see some distant scene, lip gently worried between his teeth. Mistress was frowning at her feet. Without looking at him, she put her hand on his.
"I think I understand it all now," she said. "It's like…a puzzle I didn't even realise I was trying to solve."
"Same," said Master, distantly.
"But, oh, Zen," she said. "When you tried to explain before…were you trying to get me to leave you for Obi?"
He didn't reply.
"You see now why I was trying to shut him up!" said Obi.
"But why? I love both of you, why would it be better to…"
"Because he can give you a proper life," said Master, standing and turning to face away from both of them. "He can…he can kiss you, can marry you, without it ruining everything you've worked for." He turned back towards them, took a step forward and then sank to his knees, taking Mistress's hand in his own. "You shouldn't have to wait for me, Shirayuki. I should have realised it years ago, but I was selfish. I didn't want to admit that the two of you can give each other something that I can't offer either one of you. I will still stand with you both, whatever happens, but…"
Obi was amused to notice that Master hadn't asked if he wanted to marry Mistress. But it was a meaningless question. There was no Mistress without Master, no Master with Mistress. And they could hardly all marry at once. That wasn't how marriage worked. That wasn't what it was for.
How did we both fall in love with such an idiot thought Obi. Three years, Master had spent dancing around the question of marriage with Shirayuki. Three years refusing to spell out the precise nature of his desires, and of his plans. And now he was finally speaking them aloud only to throw them all away.
"Zen," said Shirayuki. "Surely I get to decide who I marry, not you."
"Of course! And you don't have to marry either of us! But you…"
"Exactly!" She pushed her fingers between his, so that their hands were strongly linked. "I love you both. But I don't want to marry anyone right now! Why would I get married? I want to be able to stand by your side on my own two feet. I…I love Obi. And I love you. And…and I think that's enough for now. Isn't it?"
Master frowned, silently running a hand through his hair.
That Obi had found a place with them at all was more than he had ever dreamed of in years past, living alone. Obi looked at Mistress. "It's more than enough. Too much. I can't believe in it."
"You don't need to believe in it," she said. "You just need to live it." She smiled at him and he gave a small, uncertain smile back.
He couldn't believe it. But what did he have to lose by trying, at this point?
Master continued to say nothing, kneeling silently at their feet.
"Zen?" asked Mistress, voice trembling.
Master stayed silent a moment more. Obi could see his hands trembling slightly.
"Yes," he said, voice low. "It's enough."
Shirayuki threw herself against his chest with a sob. Master caught her and held her tightly, eyes damp. And then he looked up and reached his hand towards Obi.
Obi kneeled down and took his Master's hand. Then he moved forward to put an arm around them both, letting himself enjoy the strange, delightful feeling of having the two of them in his arms. Mistress sighed against his chest and he thought he might die right there.
They sat there on the floor for some time, all tangled up together.
"So, just to clarify," said Master. "You both mean for all three of us to…uh…"
"Yes," said Mistress. "If that's what you both want."
"Mmm," said Obi, because Master may have had a point about his difficulty with admitting to wanting things.
"Apparently, yes," said Master. He groaned and flopped his head against Obi's shoulder. Obi tried to decide if it would be appropriate to kiss it. He'd always wanted to kiss the top of Master's head. Actually…there were a lot of parts of Master he'd always wanted to kiss. The possibilities stretched in front of him and distracted him for a moment from listening to what Master was actually saying. It didn't help that his mouth was so close to Obi's neck. "But…this is going to be a logistical nightmare."
"Oh my goodness. Your brother!" said Shirayuki." If he didn't approve of me…Not that you aren't worthy of Zen, Obi!"
"I did say things would be better as they were, Mistress," said Obi, not really meaning it this time.
"Shirayuki," she said, correcting him. "Surely I am not your Mistress any more."
"Shirayuki," he repeated, slowly, each syllable like a benediction. "Yes. If you wish. But I think sometimes I would still like to call you Mistress." He gave her a sly smile and was rewarded with an adorable blush that made him warm all the way down to his toes.
"…if you wish," she said.
"But you will always be my Master, Zen."
"Hmm," said Zen, tilting his head to consider Obi with half lidded eyes. "We'll have to see about that."
Obi gave him a challenging grin. He could see Shirayuki between them, watching with a small smile. He felt impossibly happy.
Zen gave a sigh. "But as for more practical concerns…I think…it might be best if we pretended things are as they were," he said. "For now at least. But…" He leaned forward, face almost touching Obi's. He looked down at Mistress, and she looked up at him. Whatever he saw in her expression gave him the courage to cross the final gap and kiss Obi on the cheek. "But I am glad that things have changed."
Shirayuki, his Mistress, pulled herself upwards between them until her head was level with them both. She leaned across and kissed both their cheeks. "Me too."
"I as well," said Obi, softly.
And then, for no reason at all, he threw back his head and laughed.